Summer Nights in Shanghai
This is a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time now, but was always scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Better to tell it badly than not to do it at all, and if it really merits a rewrite, I’ll have the practice for the second time around.
This story starts during my first year of college. It was a confusing year for me. I came from a predominately Asian neighborhood on the outskirts of Toronto, comfortable in my own skin in more ways than one. I knew everyone in high school, I participated in enough extracurricular activities that I stayed at school until dinnertime every night. I didn’t have the best grades, but they were close, and I was enrolled in numerous challenging STEM courses because that’s where my friends were, but also because achievement for the sake of achievement felt good.
I didn’t know what to expect going into an undergraduate business program. Suddenly, I was surrounded by other kids in fitted suits and pressed shirts who interviewed for club positions and talked about how it was their goal to be a management consultant. I remember in the first month, someone told me a few minutes into the conversation that they wanted to go into banking, specifically ‘I-banking’, and I thought they meant ‘International Banking’.
My academically challenging high school had prepared me well for the less demanding post-secondary coursework, and I was having the time of my life making new friends and experimenting with alcohol. Yet somehow, something felt missing. There was always the feeling that others were getting ahead while somehow doing even less work than I was. I was constantly told that grades didn’t matter, but I didn’t know what did. Everyone seemed to know what to do; not necessarily career-wise, but they seemed so sure that they were doing the right thing.
When studying, I was constantly worried about the parties that I was missing. When drinking, I was constantly stressed about the schoolwork that I could have been doing. When I was playing video games, I forgot about everything else until I stopped. Then I would feel anxious about missing out on both socializing and learning. Superseding all of that, were girls. It seemed like everyone was having oodles of sex or consistently in a relationship. I didn’t know how to talk to a crush, much less woo a pretty girl.
Though there were enough Asians to form a large bubble where I didn’t have to deal with the brunt of racism, it was an undeniable reality that I never had any sort of exposure to. In fairness, my confusion should have equally been attributed to poor time management, negligible goal-setting, and lack of direction, but it was the environment that I chose to blame for my failures.
Not that I ever failed academically, but I was completely lost towards the end of first year. I longed for a return to the structure present in high school and the academic rigour, not this wishy-washy networking system that seemed to favour everyone but me. And so I bumbled through the school year, checking all the boxes on paper: I passed my courses, made new friends, and worked a little part-time. However I had this growing anxiety that I was somehow falling behind. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my career, and everything seemed to be slipping further out of reach.
It was at this time that my peers started looking for jobs and internships, many of them abetted by their parents and personal connections. All these factors together led me to swallow my pride and ask my parents to help me look for an internship in China; as first generation immigrants, I couldn’t count on their networks to be of much help in Canada. And so, without much concern for the challenges or consequences, I bought a round-trip ticket to Shanghai returning in three months.
The deal was simple. A two-month unpaid internship at a hedge fund arranged by my father’s university classmate. I would provide some semblance of work, and receive experience as well as a nice CV stamp in return, while living with my grandparents in Shanghai to offset the tremendous cost of accommodations. The same sort of privileged deal that my classmates from Oakville secured for themselves, but halfway across the world.
I went to Shanghai with my family every few summers, staying at one grandmother’s home or the other. And this summer was shaping up to be no different; though I didn’t have my parents or sister with me, I was spoiled, doted on, and cooked for, very much in demand. I had always enjoyed being in Shanghai.
Then work started and the honeymoon phase ended. Work consisted of sitting in my cubicle for eight hours a day doing absolutely nothing. I was originally tasked with conducting market research on Chinese stocks using English sources, then translating the content, but that fell through on the first day when I admitted I could not read, much less write Chinese. I ended up being the ad-hoc emergency translator, and twiddled my thumbs for seven hours a day, taking an hour for lunch.
Though work wasn’t demanding in the least, and the commute was only half an hour, every day was more draining than the last. I would wake up at eight everyday to get to the office by nine, and leave past five to get home before six. I would eat dinner with my grandparents, then catch up with my friends in Canada as they were waking up. As much as I enjoyed spending time with my grandparents and seeing other relatives on the weekends, I felt lonely.
As I started wishing for work to end everyday, wishing for summer to end so I could go back to Canada, I started seeing my future laid out in front of me. Tomorrow, and for the rest of my life, I’d go to work at some corporation, come home, and repeat the next day. And I wasn’t even doing anything at work yet.
This was how Shanghai found me, lacking morale and direction. I didn’t know what I would spend my life doing, but I did know that I was already helplessly behind my peers. And even if I could somehow succeed, I was already dreading it. I peaked in high school and I was already on a decline.
And so I dutifully trudged to work every day and back, soaking in the middle of Shanghai’s pseudo-monsoon season, not because I wanted to, but because I had been told this was what I needed to do. Meals with grandparents and other relatives started to feel longer as the novelty faded for everyone. My friends back home were all busy rushing to their own internships early in the morning and my interactions with them diminished to that once a day.
The only social interaction that I had with any peers, or anyone my age then, was with one classmate from college who was also ‘working’ an unpaid internship in China, L. He was based out of Beijing so I never actually saw him during the three months I was in China, but we were in the same time zone at the very least. Bored, we did nothing but complain about our jobs and compare dating app experiences. I still have our WeChat conversations from that summer, and looking back now, all the photos were of girls from and our conversations with them. “What does this mean?” “How do I ask her to go on a date?”
Through trial and error, and the help of WeChat’s built-in translate function, we learned Chinese, going from knowing only how to write our names to eloquently translating cheesy English pickup lines. We were acquaintances at the start of the summer, but by the end, without meeting once, we were close friends, bonded by experience. The single most important thing L did that summer however, was tell me that another classmate of ours was going to be in Shanghai.
Starving for any social interaction, I met up with L’s friend. To my surprise, he brought a high school friend who was also in Shanghai for the summer, W. That first night was a harbinger of what was to come. Being a ‘native’, I showed them around the city, took them for a walk along the Bund, and then we all went to a Hooters. There were no hooters at this Hooters, but it was a novel experience and I still have the picture to this day.
The very next weekend, W and I hung out together again, the first of many blurry nights. We went to a bar, deemed it too expensive after a drink, had beers from a convenience store, and went to my first Asian karaoke experience. When we left, all the lights in the city were off, I had three missed calls from my grandparents, and it was near impossible to get a taxi home.
The next weekend, W had signed up for a startup pitch competition, and I finessed my way in to join him. For the first time since my arrival in Shanghai, I was exposed to the expat community. Europeans, Australians, and Americans, all speaking English, working together to build something. It was incredible. That weekend, I grit my teeth and talked to as many people as I could, hoping to be memorable.
Those two days led to my induction into a Germany expat group where everyone’s accent was so thick I had difficulty telling if they were speaking English or German at times. It also led to me finding another internship at a Shanghai-based startup. It paid RMB2000, which was about CAD400, but was definitely better than nothing. I resigned from my internship at the hedge fund and started working there the next week.
The company was based in an accelerator with more expats, and in the company was an American born Chinese CEO, a Frenchman CTO, a Dutch content director, a Brazilian-Korean artistic director, a Hapa Canadian marketing director, and me. Everyone worked in English to create a marketplace for upcycled goods.
Those were the start of my summer nights in Shanghai. I would usually go home for dinner after work, then meet up with any of my new friends at Yongkang Lu before heading to other bars or a club. Anchored by a coworker, a German expat, or W, I met people from all walks of life, from all around the world, in cyberpunk-esque venues that were more advanced and glitzy than anything I’d ever seen before.
Many of the people I met moved to Shanghai after the 2007/2008 recession because they couldn’t find jobs at home. Some decided to teach English in China for a couple years and ended up staying for ten. Others just needed to be somewhere where they’d feel more accepted. With my newfound confidence, I even began talking to girls that I met at bars. Everyone had aspirations and everything seemed possible. The future possibilities were limitless. When we weren’t drinking, we were talking about our next startup idea. We spray painted some walls. We attended art festivals. We bought tickets to underground concerts. We dreamed.
Just like how it was difficult to disentangle race from the other factors leading to a miserable first year at college, it was hard to say how much of my contentment stemmed from being somewhere where I was once again comfortable in my own skin. Few harboured prejudice against Asians, and I was doubly advantaged in that I spoke fluent English with rapidly improving Chinese, opening opportunities for me in all circles. If it wasn’t a newfound sense of pride in my dual identity, in the wonders and arrogance of Shanghai, it was at the very least a lack of othering.
When it was time for me to leave Shanghai to start another semester of school in Canada, it was with great reluctance that I did so. I bid farewell to my relatives, friends, and freedom that I found in the wild concrete jungle. But I took the feeling of possibility with me. I started the new year invigorated, inspired by the people I met who started off with nothing but their wits, and now ran Shanghai.
Some things stuck, like the pride in my Chinese identity and interest in Chinese culture, the improvement in Chinese language helping me secure my current job. Other things less so, particularly the fleeting feeling of infinite opportunities.
Over the years, I’ve stopped talking to many of the friends I made, but L and W remain some of my closest friends, as well as W’s on and off girlfriend at the time, S. It’s impossible to think of any of them, or drink with any of them without lamenting about those nights in Shanghai.
As I was brought back down to reality eventually by the constraints of student loans denominated in Canadian dollars, familial expectations of stability, and lack of serious motivation, I’ve tried to recapture the feeling many a time when I wanted inspiration to break out of my corporate job. Visiting Shanghai for a few weeks doesn’t do it. Even a night of drinking with my sister in Shanghai only brought me a hangover and stern reprimands from my family. Yongkang Lu is now closed. That summer in Shanghai lives only in my memory now.
Sometimes I listen to the Chinese songs I learned that summer when I’m feeling down. They always bring me respite and remind me of a time when time and hope seemed limitless. When I’m especially drunk with W, L, or S, I’ll put one of them on and belt out the lyrics. My friends find it embarrassing, but they never notice my tears as I’m reliving those summers nights in Shanghai.
I liked making fun of Perks as much as the next guy and the movie wasn’t special. But I love Erza Miller, and the closing monologue from the movie is exactly what I felt, drunk in a taxi as the sun was rising, with W at my side, talking about our big plans for the future.
“I know these will all be stories some day, and our pictures will become old photographs. We all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now, these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here, and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song, and that drive with the people who you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”
Thank you everyone who helped me make those memories to relive, and thank you Shanghai for those endless summer nights.